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Iraqi Nationals See Immigration Cases Expedited Under Trump Administration

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Under President Trump, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has ramped up efforts to deport Iraqi nationals whose legal status is - in the U.S. is in limbo. Courts have issued ordered for them - orders for them to be deported, but the government in Iraq won't take them back unless they agree to come voluntarily. Many of these Iraqis have been in the U.S. for decades. Chas Sisk with member station WPLN in Nashville reports their situation has triggered a massive court battle.

CHAS SISK, BYLINE: When immigration authorities came to Muneer Subaihani's apartment in Nashville, he suspected the worst.

MUNEER SUBAIHANI: Immigration knock my door almost 5 o'clock in the morning. And I'm no open the door.

SISK: Subaihani didn't open his door, and the ICE agents left. Three days later, he received a foreboding letter in the mail. It asked him to report to an immigration office nearby.

SUBAIHANI: They say you got meeting - meeting for what? Now I'm scared. I no want to do that.

SISK: He had reason to be worried. Since 2004 when he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor marijuana possession, Muneer Subaihani has faced a deportation order. But it wasn't enforced until 2017. That's when ICE rounded up nearly 300 Iraqis nationwide, including Subaihani. After his arrest, he spent most of the next year shuffling between detention centers. Finally he signed a piece of paper stating he was willing to go back to Iraq.

SUBAIHANI: And I sign it. I get tired.

SISK: There are about 1,400 Iraqis across the U.S. with unenforced deportation orders. They include refugees from Saddam Hussein's regime like Subaihani, ethnic Kurds and Chaldean Christians. Many have lived in the United States for decades, and the Iraqi government won't guarantee their safety if they return. Miriam Ackerman is with the American Civil Liberties Union.

MIRIAM ACKERMAN: What ICE has done here to Muneer is what it's trying to do to hundreds of Iraqis, which is deport them to a country that is extremely dangerous.

SISK: Ackerman is leading a class-action lawsuit to stop the deportations. A spokesman for ICE declined to be interviewed, but in a written statement, the agency said allowing people like Subaihani to stay would put communities at risk and undermine immigration laws. Again, Miriam Ackerman with the ACLU.

ACKERMAN: ICE has really simply had a incredible disregard for court orders and has violated them right, left and center. And Muneer's case is really the most extreme example.

SISK: Subaihani ended up back in Iraq almost six months ago. He found shelter with an ailing brother, the only home he could find after a quarter century away. With no papers showing he was an Iraqi citizen, he was afraid to leave his home.

SUBAIHANI: I stayed in the house, like, I told you six months. I'm not going nowhere. Here, it's not safe - people crazy.

SISK: Subaihani's fortunes changed last fall when a federal judge determined ICE should not have deported him without an immigration hearing. The judge ordered ICE to take the unusual step of bringing him back to the U.S.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Unintelligible).

SISK: Late last month, Subaihani traveled back to Nashville where three friends greeted him at the airport.

(CROSSTALK)

SISK: Subaihani's gait was wobbly, and he'd lost about 40 pounds. While overseas, he says he'd been unable to get his prescription for heart medication refilled. Subaihani now hopes to work with a friend's food truck business, but he can't be sure his ordeal is over.

SUBAIHANI: Maybe they pick me up again. I'm not for sure - maybe tomorrow. You never know.

SISK: Caught between two countries, neither of which is eager to have him, Subaihani's immigration status may remain in doubt for years. For NPR News, I'm Chas Sisk in Nashville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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